The Buzz

The One Country Rodrigo Duterte Won't 'Separate' From Anytime Soon

From October 18 to 21, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is making his first state visit to China as part of his push for an “independent” Philippine foreign policy. Although analysts have seen the trip and numerous anti-Western remarks as signs of Duterte rejecting the United States and pivoting fully toward China, the ongoing warmth of the security relationship with Japan—China’s greatest rival in East Asia—hints at a greater balancing act within Duterte’s foreign policy vision.

Less than a week before leaving for Beijing, Duterte gave an address praising Japan for its continued assistance to the Philippines, including 10 patrol ships donated to the Philippine Coast Guard. Speaking during the 115th anniversary of the Philippine Coast Guard, Duterte praised Japan as one of the biggest contributors of official development assistance to the Filipino people, and cited the aid the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) provided to Davao during his time as mayor.

It is interesting that, despite Duterte’s efforts to engage China on business and to manage the tension in the South China Sea, he also sees the need to secure more ships from Japan to patrol the Philippines’ maritime territory. In front of Japanese ambassador Kazuhide Ishikawa, Duterte announced “We need ships…it is not enough, but at least we have ships to begin with. The old ones, plus the new one that has been delivered to us, would greatly help us in this endeavor.”

Duterte’s trip to China focuses on forging a new economic partnership between the two countries at a time when diplomatic tension between the Philippines and its formal treaty ally, the United States, is increasing. His working visit to Tokyo, however, scheduled for October 25 to 27, is expected to clarify how Japan will help the Philippines develop its maritime security capabilities in light of the South China Sea dispute. Despite the efforts to move closer to China, Manila finds it prudent to keep its security partnership with Japan intact and functional.

Duterte is pursuing a relatively balanced policy that gravitates closer to China while creating some diplomatic distance from the Philippines’ only strategic security ally, the United States. Regarding the former, he declared that he is open to direct bilateral negotiations with China. Duterte’s foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay, declared “that the relationship between the two countries (China and the Philippines) is not limited to the maritime dispute. There are other areas of concern in such fields as investment, trade, and tourism and discussing them could open the doors for talks on the maritime issues.”

On the latter, Duterte has called for the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces who are operating in Mindanao to support the Philippine military’s counterterrorism operations. He also ordered the Philippine Navy to cancel joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, on the grounds that these activities could be construed by China as a provocative act and make it more difficult to peacefully resolve the territorial dispute.

The embrace of Beijing and the alienation of Washington has unsettled both the United States and Japan. Puzzled by the changes in Philippine foreign policy, the Japanese government has pushed ahead in its nuanced approach to dealing with the Philippines. A senior Japanese official said that, while Tokyo and Washington share the same goal in the Philippines, Japan takes a different approach in its relations with the Philippines because there are some things that Manila can only accept when Japan provides them. Amid Duterte’s anti-American pronouncements, Japan continues its comprehensive engagement with the Philippines.

In early August 2016, Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida met Duterte in Davao City where the two discussed how their countries could work together for the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute on the basis of July’s arbitral tribunal ruling, which Japan considers final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines. Kishida explained to Duterte that enhancing Philippine Coast Guard and Navy capabilities in maritime security is an important pillar of his country’s assistance to the Philippines. He then informed Duterte that Japan intended to push ahead with donating patrol boats and leasing training aircraft to the Philippine Navy for maritime domain awareness.